Australia’s High Court has temporarily blocked the government from handing over to Sri Lanka 153 asylum seekers intercepted at sea.
The move comes amid growing international objections to the country’s tough immigration policies.
The injunction, which runs until an emergency court hearing today, follows the interception and return of 41 other Sri Lankan asylum seekers on a separate boat by the Australian navy on Sunday.
Sri Lankan police said those 41 would be charged with leaving the country illegally and any found guilty would face “rigorous imprisonment”, raising concerns about rights abuses in the island nation.
Lawyer George Newhouse, of law firm Shine, who represents 48 of the 153 people aboard the second boat, won the injunction in a special hearing yesterday.
The asylum seekers were “entitled to have their claims for protection processed in accordance with Australian law”, Mr Newhouse said.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison’s office said the “government notes the matter is currently before the court and accordingly will be making no further comment”.
Mr Morrison declined to comment on reports of the second boat, other than to say it was not in Australian waters.
The 41 asylum seekers on the first boat were transferred to Sri Lankan authorities at sea on Sunday, off the country’s eastern port of Batticaloa, after Australian border personnel intercepted the vessel west of the remote Cocos Islands last week, on suspicion of entering Australian waters illegally.
The Sri Lankan navy handed the group to the police and police spokesman Ajith Rohana said they would be taken before a court in the south-western port of Galle. He did not say when this was set to happen.
“They will be charged under the Immigrants and Emigrants Act,” he said. “The sentence for those proved to have left illegally is two years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine. But if there are any facilitators, then they will be tried, even if they have left legally.”
Rights groups and some western countries have raised concerns with Sri Lanka over accusations of human rights violations during the final phase of the war against Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.
Sri Lanka says many asylum seekers are economic migrants, but rights groups say Tamils seek asylum to prevent torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the military. Four of the 41 asylum seekers are Tamils.
In the past three months, three Tamil asylum seekers on temporary visas in Australia, facing the prospect of being returned to Sri Lanka, have set themselves on fire and two of them died.
Yesterday, 53 Australian legal scholars said the country’s policy “raises a real risk” of breaching its obligations under international refugee and human rights law.
“These people are being held on the high seas, without being allowed to contact lawyers, challenge their detention in court or speak with family and friends,” said Ben Saul, a law professor at Sydney University. He said the secrecy around “Operation Sovereign Borders” disrespected its voluntary commitments under UN conventions.
The UN expressed serious concerns last week about Australia’s brief assessment of the asylum seekers’ claims when reports of the two boats first emerged. The government declined to comment at the time.
“There was a lot of shrill and hysterical claims that were made over the course of the past week,” Mr Morrison said. “None of those has proved to be true.”
The incident comes on the eve of a visit by Mr Morrison to Sri Lanka, where he will attend a ceremony with president Mahinda Rajapakse to mark Australia’s gift of two former patrol vessels.
More than 70 per cent of Australians support the border policy, including sending boats back, according to a recent poll.